He taps the packet on the dusty kitchen surface.
Packet’s compact, not solid. He taps it once again to be sure, and notices at the corner, a small stain on the shiny surface. A quick inspection with a fingernail, reveals a red speck. The pit of his stomach drops and yet he can’t imagine what else was to be expected, how else this was to be obtained. The salesman, the man he is entrusting is a Tell’er. It’s in their very nature to be deceitful, to look for survival at any cost. And when he considers what he is asking, what he is unburdening, these small flecks do not weigh heavy upon his conscience. It is but another accumulated paper-cut.
A child’s face, as dirty as the kitchen surfaces, peers through the door. It spies who’s inside and quickly vanishes. The man in the corner, the Tell’er, wanders back and forth getting his bearings of the room, although he’s been here before many times. He’s always alert, always ready. He’s trying to be subservient, to be respectful and quiet.
It’s a hard task, and it’s making him edgy, out of sorts. He’s trying to place the objects in the room. He’s sure that clock was an exchange, the silverware too. Strange how the other half lives. Ix can’t take it any longer.
“You want it? Or no?”
The other man shrugs his shoulders. He sniffs the packet now. ”Doesn’t smell right.”
The salesman moves to grab it off him. ”It’s high quality, premium you just haven’t laid your hands on the good stuff since it all began.”
The salesman’s pitch isn’t winning his target around.
”Where’d you get it anyway?”
”That’s a tale,” says Ix. ”Well it’s not really. I found it, deserted, on the ground, in some knapsack. ”
”Pull the other one.”
”Alright I’ll give it some more colour. I found it deserted on the ground in a knapsack, next to a man. And I pulled it off of him.”
”Sounds more likely. But you’re the colour of light leather on a sunny day. I’d expect blood. Black and blue, maybe a little yellow. But you’re uniformly unscathed.”
”So he wasn’t much of a go-getter. To be honest he wasn’t much of a brain surgeon either.”
The salesman draws up close to the other man, his mouth at his ear. He slides his hands, remade as weapons over either side of the man’s hips. He rips his hands upwards as if he were cutting at flesh.
”See he sold his kidney for that package. Seems he thought he’d have time to enjoy it. Problem was he hadn’t long gone and sold the other one. He was the one who was yellow. It was clean sailing, Father.”
The man slits open the package; out pours brown grounds. He puts it to his nose to inhale the scent.
“This is the real deal. So, you had me called here for a reason. I mean this, this coffee – I’m getting something in return.”
The sky is dark, burnt, although it is a long while till sundown. The land too is decrepit, cracked and dry; baked even though the sun can barely scrape its rays through. Amongst the dry ground trails a young girl and behind her trail two dogs. She weaves in and out of a cut-path in what would have been fields, if they were toiled anymore. The dogs weave behind her. The small posse shuffle between overgrown plants; dry and brittle but still inching towards the sky, desperate for water at their roots and sunshine in their lungs.
Yolanda has been up early sent on a myriad of errands, and now she’s come to the end of her list. This one’s the enjoyable part: the wild yips and yaps of dogs nestling into the undergrowth and following their noses, the pleasant feel of foot fall after foot fall. Of space, after been cooped up for so long. Fresh air, wind between the many corners of her mind, where something has been playing about; scratching. A stray thought she hasn’t been able to corner and place neatly back in the box. She’s nearing the end of the walk, the return to reality; stocking up on firewood, putting together whatever supplies they might have. Her foot falls on something soft. She pulls away sharply.
Nothing in this landscape is soft.
As far as her eye can see lie a series of crows, splattered on the ground as if they’d simply dropped from the sky. Dive-bombed. Recently, judging by her encounter. She eyes her watch, and shrugs. It makes a kind of sense, she supposes, at about this time. Now she tiptoes her way through the small field of bodies; the dogs too give them a wild berth. Their enjoyment dampened a little.
From the sea of crows, they emerge into what she has come to call home. Deluded, they might be, but unremittingly friendly they are too, and she is glad to make it out of the depths of death towards smiling faces. Yolanda thinks of ways she could make the crows an anecdote, something that was sent directly in her path, to no doubt test her.
Their wings clipped, they fell from the sky in unison, at my feet. Lost souls called to return to the earth. They’d like the idea of being called, of souls, the poetry and the spiritual of something that was nothing but a cruel and bitter fact, with no clear reasoning behind it.
She passes the main barn expecting to see a couple of stragglers clearing the place up, preparing it for the ‘Lord’s Work’. She prepares her face and hand to wave and smile at these feeble-minded folks.
But there’s no one there.
The scratching becomes more precise, it’s painful now, the emptiness, the definite lack of what should be. It’s eerie. She breaks from her slow pace, she pulls her feet up; she runs. The dogs are enjoying the race, striding ahead of her.
She breaks off her speed. Comes to the farmhouse. It’s deathly silent. No movement.
And there’s a smell, she puts her head up tries to trace this odour. Had she smelt it before? A ghost of a memory catches in her mind. She moves towards the side-door. Tries the knob. Pushes against it. It sticks fast. She’s about to get frantic, to pull and claw and holler.
”Don’t breathe it in.”
The salesman, Ix, calls from behind her. He looks shifty, uncomfortable, a pained expression, he’s got to tell her something that he doesn’t want to. She can tell.
”Tell’er. Ix? Breathe in what?”
”The Father, he said, he said that the time that was prophesied had come to pass. Don’t breathe it in.”
She falls back from the door. And doesn’t look directly at the house any longer. It’s a giant blind spot. The dogs, she doesn’t know where they’ve got to. She doesn’t want to look.
”He made me leave. He gave me a list.”
“He said you weren’t a true believer, you’d never hidden it, he wasn’t a murderer, he couldn’t take you, not if you weren’t a believer. See they think, they thought, the end is nigh.”
”It’s been nigh, for centuries now.”
The Tell’er gives her a bleak smile, and skitters back and forth, kicks at a bag lying on the ground. This wasn’t his usual sort of gig. Usually there was an exchange: of goods, of information, or tales. Tales of what them-over-yonder were up to, where the latest food or other usual substances could be found, who was friendly, who was not, what was happening and why, always mixed with a little bit of spice, local or otherwise, perhaps an untruth here and there. Keep them wanting more, keep them in that murky middle-world of uncertainty, can we trust the Tell’er? Are we in safe-hands? Do we care when the tale’s too good to be true? In this new world order, that was long past new, that’s how you could make a living, the exchange of tales, there was no call for the paper exchange or the metal nowadays, there were no manufacturers to put these things into the marketplace anyway. Just the lone Tell’er walking out and mixing with the different folks, the ragbag groups that had formed from the primordial soup of the remnants of humanity. He knew other Tell’ers, but gave them a wide-berth. They were only good for intoxication, of mind and body.
And now here he was with a companion. Or a future companion, if she didn’t bolt out to the wild, or kick-down the door. Suffocate in the fumes.
Ix had watched as the Father took his pack of foraged for coffee and began to empty out the contents. Ix hadn’t lied with his final tale, some poor soul had sold his kidney for that bagful, but unfortunately forgot about the other one he had lost not that long ago. A robbery, perhaps, Ix wondered. Maybe the man was knocked out the first-time, endured a little minor-operation, and was sent on his way home, never fully being told the whole story. It made a kind of sense.
And now the Father was taking this packet and brewing its content. The full lot. A man’s life was being spent in front of his eyes.
”Father, that, I’m not going to come into that for a good long while. It took the man who got it. It was a mighty shock I came into it in the first place- shouldn’t you- I mean this could last months, maybe years if kept well.”
The man ignored him. And started to bring out a series of mugs. One after the other. He placed them on the kitchen counter, then spread them across the table. A never-ending series of mugs.
And then The Father began his own tale. A tale of beginnings and endings, of servitude and endurance, of the foretold time and the foretold place and the finality of all things. But also of hope, of the young bud that sprouts from the crust of despair, that pushes through although there is nothing to sustain it, and that keeps pushing ever further in search of light.
He named his exchange. ”The girl.”
The Teller shook his head, he was affronted, not his kind of thing all. And others, they simply weighed you down, the lighter you were on the feet the easier you could disappear from danger.
The Father in the meantime had distributed the coffee into a series of jugs and pots, and now into the kitchen trickled a stream of dirty children and adults all carrying pots of boiling water, which they began to pour into these devices.
As they traipsed out, the Father explained in more detail. ”She has your gift,” he said, ”she’s the prodigy you didn’t know you had. More importantly, you’re all she has.”
Ix was about to protest, a girl, she wasn’t worth the package, she would only be trouble. All she had? He didn’t understand.
The old man had mixed the elixir, the mugs of coffee, and the followers were once again traipsing in, this time they left with their own mug. It was a strange series of faces, of ages, at least thirty-five people wandered in and out, before the Father spoke again.
“It has come. The final time. The time of no return. I am aged, my followers are tired, we have been rewarded only with continual hardship, this was not as it was foretold. The bliss lies in the other world. And we are to follow it. Yolanda, she does not believe in these things, although she thinks us too simple to notice. ”
The old man sipped at his coffee cup, and breathed a satisfied sigh.
Ix stumbled out of the building, as the followers sealed it up from the inside. Blinds and curtains came down all around, tape was wrapped around any openings, there was a continuous rhythmic sound that he couldn’t quite place. Until it dawned on him, hammer against nail; they were covering all bases. He began to smell something odd, and pulled himself away from the building, to sit on a kerb and await Yolanda.
Ix and Yolanda sit side by side. Yolanda’s face etched with tears. Gone, they were all gone, without even the decency to tell her, to hint at the possibility that the errands she had run were entirely useless. Or not entirely as Ix had pointed out, she had gathered food supplies, clothing and bedding. In fact, when she thought over it, this had been what had clawed at her mind, the smallness in nature of what she was asked to do. It seemed it would only benefit one person. That wasn’t how the Lord’s Followers worked. But today was different, they saw her as a seed of hope in a sickly world, one they did not feel they were meant for. Or so the Tell’er spun it. And she was his apprentice, sold for the last remaining bag of coffee. A worthy price he assured her.
”We should be leaving, ” she tells Ix. Yolanda points to the house. “We don’t know the effects of this.” The dogs bound down from their hiding place, prepared for a long journey.
”I guess not,” he says, and hands her a knapsack. She absent-mindedly scratches a thumbnail across it, removing small red flecks. Which pulls her attention away for a moment. Yolanda looks up at Ix suddenly.
”Do you know why the birds fall out of the sky the way they do, clockwork every-day?”
Ix shrugs his shoulders, he’s more intent on leaving the farm then entering into a discussion. But his profession and his trade means he needs to find some way of explanation. This afternoon has stumped him though, and burdened him with an apprentice to teach the arts of occasionally telling people what they thought they wanted to hear, when they didn’t want to hear it, and what they needed to hear when they didn’t want to listen.
She gathers her assorted supplies in the knapsack, and swings it over shoulder.
”Could it be the levels of oxygen have decreased? In the air. Something to do with air pressure and atmosphere and the sky being black. ”
“Makes a kind of sense.” He said.
The dogs follow her as she walks past the gate, and closes it behind them all.
“Perhaps,” he starts…
“It all began when the skies burnt in the great fires,” she said.
“And the world grew dark,” he continued as they made their away away from the farmhouse. “And the birds sought safe passage towards the sun, which had faded from sight.”
“And many still make the pilgrimmage,” said Yolanda, “each day at two.”